Friday, September 20, 2013

A Public Challenge to All Actors and Storytellers


Back when I used to maintain this blog, I liked to write short stories that only took ten minutes to read, the absolute limit one can ask of a blog reader. In general, they were pretty light and required practically no research. I enjoyed writing them because I think composing fiction is the nearest one can come to entering a world of fantasy, body and soul, without taking drugs, although I suppose you might get something like that with video games. The only video game I ever tried was Pong back in 1977, so I can't be sure. I know they both have to do with intense focus and loss of sense of time and space and not eating and putting off going to the bathroom. 

Anyway, I stopped writing these stories a long time ago because I got too busy. I had to start working weekends to pay the bills. But every now and again I like to go back and read these stories and, with the benefit of distance and experience, can now understand how they are all flawed and not the masterpieces I first took them to be.

If I do have a favorite it's the one about the Tuttles. I think this story is about the best I can write and I hope someday to have it performed for recording by an actor. If anyone wants to take a crack at it, let me know.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Several Random Thoughts Signifying Nothing


The Von Schprock College of Selective Knowledge

If I ever found an institution of higher learning:

The English Department will offer a course entitled "Rock 'n' Roll Grammar" which attempts to establish grammatical rules for popular music lyrics from the early 1950s to the present. A week will be spent on the Hip Hop genre alone. Expect a class devoted entirely to unraveling the group America's famous line from A Horse With No Name, "'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain."

The History Department will offer a course entitled "The Tarantino Timeline" which examines the events leading up to the conclusion of World War II and the conditions prevalent in the pre-civil war South. 

Course suggestions are welcome.

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Mystery Photo ID'ed

I've noticed the above photograph floating around the internet. Obviously it's Robert DeNiro and Brenda Vacarro pictured with their love child, circa 1972. To the right is General Zod.

CORRECTION: Oops. My bad. It's a picture of the Marathon Bombers' parents with Baby Suspect Number One. 

To the right is General Zod.

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This Must Stop!

Reminders of how old I am must stop. I'm reading Robert Caro's The Passage of Power from his biographical series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Okay, when I was a kid, Johnson was the president, right? This old dude who was always on the news, got me? Well guess what. When that old man assumed the presidency after JFK was assassinated, he was two years younger than I am now!

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Not Their Finest Hour

I just finished Churchill's Memoirs of World War II, which is an abridgment of a much larger work. The reader quickly finds Sir Winston a very easy man to like, his writing is outstanding and often quite witty, and it's fascinating to get a view of WWII from one of its main actors. He sets the stage by beginning his story at the conclusion of World War I (some historians consider both wars one very big one with an uneasy break in the middle) and guides the reader through the politics and prosecution of the war with all the logistical headaches that go with it. You may be surprised that he is very gracious and fair to Neville Chamberlain, and in general he tries quite hard to see contrary points of view even when completely sure that his way would have been best. 

But, boy, did Stalin play the Western powers. Played us all for chumps. We had to deal with him, we had to help Russia, but in the end he took us for all we were worth. Churchill could never get the upper hand. As evil as he was, sometimes you've got to give the devil his due.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Marathon Bombing


It was a beautiful day and I decided to do a little painting on the old homestead. The "weather side" of our house had taken an awful beating over the past few years. So I'm up there on a plank with my scraper and my caulking gun and my pot of paint. The Red Sox game had just ended and now I'm listening to the afternoon sports talk guys. The Patriots have a wide receiver problem. The Bruins still don't have a power play. All of a sudden sirens start wailing and fire engine horns blare. It feels like they're all around me. I jokingly think to myself, well, this is the point in the marathon when the heart attack cases (those people not really in shape to run 26.2 miles) start to drop. Those poor bastards with pork chop-clogged aortas clutching their chests all at once. Then the sports talk guys mention an explosion.

It's funny how a solitary man on plank engaged in such a solitary pursuit can be so plugged in to what was going on. All it took was a radio and proximity to an event.

I went for a bike ride early that morning. There's this route I like that takes me through Brighton, Brookline, Newton and Boston. Small parts of it were sections of the Boston marathon route which I did my best to avoid. Eventually I wound up at my office located at the beginning of Newbury Street, five blocks from the marathon finish line. There I cleaned up and went out to breakfast. Later I ran an errand that took me to the Fenway area. As on every Patriots Day, the Red Sox scheduled an 11:00 home game that morning. I sat for a while and watched the Red Sox fans stream to the park, excited families and lots of boyfriends with their girlfriends clad in Red Sox gear. I almost enquired if there were any standing room tickets left.

If the day wasn't so nice, I would have gone back to the office to catch up on some some work. But it was beautiful, so there I was later that afternoon, up on a plank listening to the radio and the sirens.

The next day, Tuesday, I was able to go to work because my office was exactly one block outside the zone the authorities designated as a crime scene. It was another beautiful day. I felt a little timid running out for a snack  that afternoon. The Public Garden was ringed with TV trucks, all of them massive and white with enormous satellite dishes perched on their tops. Reporters roamed with microphones while cameramen carrying tripods hustled to keep up. The atmosphere felt subdued. Nearby was the barrier closing off one end of Boylston Street keeping back a small crowd gazing toward the finish line area. I saw a marathon runner wearing an official blue and yellow jacket being interviewed. Later there were rumors that a suspect had been caught and was being rushed to the Moakley Courthouse in the North End. Everyone was elated by the news. A 5:00 press conference was scheduled. Then somebody called in a bomb threat and the courthouse was evacuated. Then there was no press conference and, as it turned out, no suspect.

Everybody knows what happened. The two Tsarnaev brothers got caught, one killed and the other badly injured, but not before they seriously screwed up a lot lives and disrupted many, many more. That Friday when multiple law enforcement agencies hunted young Dzhokhar in neighboring Watertown, my wife and I "sheltered in place" with our eyes glued to the TV news. Never in my life have I experienced anything like it. That is actually one of the the many good things about this country. Events like this are not commonplace as they are in other places on the earth. 

Sometimes when you're working up on a plank, so many feet above the ground, it can be kind of peaceful and removed. Detached. But you can't stay that way.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jackie Bradley Junior!



The Red Sox have a hot new player who everyone thinks should start the season with the big club and win Rookie of the Year and the American League MVP. His name is Jackie Bradley Junior and that's how his name is always said. Never "Bradley" or "Jackie" or "Jackie Bradley." Always "Jackie Bradley Junior." Usually when you get the constant "Junior" there's a notable "Senior," such as Ken Griffey Senior. The only thing I know about Jackie Bradley, Sr. is that he contributed the critical genetic material that went into the creation of the hardball phenom known as Jackie Bradley, Jr.

To me, Jackie Bradley, Jr. isn't a baseball name. It's more of an Ed Sullivan Show name. (Readers under 45, please Google and report back. And keep Google on standby.) I imagine sequined suits, big band music with lots of brass, sold-out Las Vegas shows, and "Ladies and gentlemen, Caesar's Palace is proud to present, Mr. Entertainment himself, Jackie . . . Bradley . . . Junior!" Jackie Bradley, Jr. should have a Christmas album. There should be pictures of Jackie Bradley, Jr. hamming it up with the Beatles, Jackie Bradley, Jr. on a yacht with Jackie O, Jackie Bradley, Jr. playing golf with Bob Hope, Jackie Bradley, Jr. at Elvis' funeral, Jackie Bradley, Jr. singing "We Are the World,"  Jackie Bradley, Jr. in Africa with Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Bradley, Jr. playing golf with Bill Clinton, Jackie Bradley, Jr. in conference with Bishop Tutu, Jackie Bradley, Jr. in conference with Pope John Paul II, Jackie Bradley, Jr. headlining the Super Bowl halftime show, Jackie Bradley, Jr. playing golf with George W., Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Barry Obama going one-on-one in a friendly game of basketball.

But he is, as I say, a baseball player.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

McDonald's Is Their Kind of Place


"You can smell that guy all the way from here!" This was the outraged declaration that broke my focus from the book I was reading. I looked up and sure enough he was talking to me, a rumpled middle-aged man standing there expecting a reaction. So I said, "Oh."

I actually couldn't smell anything, but I did look in the direction his thumb indicated. Down near the front of the McDonald's I saw a pile of blankets heaped on a chair. After a moment I noticed the pile of blankets had legs, and then I quickly realized it was a man slumped over the table in front of him. Nearby on the table was an open laptop. While browsing the internet he had fallen asleep. A homeless guy with a laptop, something new.

Evidently I wasn't required to say anything else. The middle-aged man walked past me to the rest room. But if he did expect something more from me, I probably would have said, "So what?"

As referenced in the title above (based on an advertising jingle no one under the age of 45 will recognize), most weekday mornings I have breakfast at a McDonald's, most often the one in Boston's Kenmore Square. I have known for a long time that in the city McDonald's restaurants serve as haunts for the homeless, but that has never deterred me from breakfasting in them. I usually roll in between six-thirty and seven o'clock, and, knowing that the indigent by definition keep strange hours, I fully expect the company of two or more unfortunates already seated nursing their coffees and mumbling to themselves. 

For me, their presence is mostly atmosphere and not much more than that. I became inured to them a long time ago. I'm not a homeless advocate, I don't despise them, I maybe feel a little sorry for them, but deep down in my heart of cold granite I don't trouble myself about them. Maybe there's a little of the "there but for the grace of God" mixed in. I don't wish them ill, but I do wish they wouldn't beg, particularly while I'm seated in a restaurant eating a meal.

One time while engrossed in my book, a man in a wheelchair pulled up alongside my table as if docking a boat and started asking me for money. I cut him off, rolled my eyes, told him I was trying to eat my breakfast for God's sakes, and asked him to please leave me in peace. I think a dispassionate viewer of the scene would have judged me a complete dick about the whole matter. Hell, if it was someone else and I was the observer, I probably would have thought him a complete dick, too. Anyway, the man in the wheelchair didn't budge. He quoted a Bible verse or two and told me he was providing me an opportunity to demonstrate a little human Christian kindness, some welcome nourishment for my soul, and he, a humble servant of the Lord, was willing to abase himself for my spiritual benefit. That's the short version. He in fact went on and on in this way until it became quite plain that he wouldn't leave until my soul got properly nourished. Finally, beaten but still rolling my eyes and huffing and puffing, I fished from my pocket all the change I had, which he accepted in a speech which I tried to shorten with interjections of, "Okay . . . okay . . . thank you . . . yes . . . okay . . . we're done now . . . okay."

There's another homeless man I see nearly every morning who I actually like and wouldn't mind befriending. I know his whole story because he talks on his cell phone in a carrying "telephone voice" from the moment he sits down. His main two interlocutors seem to be his mother and a social worker. I know he lives in a shelter and is working to get better housing through "Father Bill." I know he's a born-again Christian, I know he plays the saxophone and recently scraped his pennies together to get his instrument overhauled. I'm convinced he's trying really hard to be a solid citizen.

The other McDonald's I go to is the one near Park Street Station and that one is even more of a homeless haven. A shelter called Bridge Over Troubled Water is only a block or so away. There you encounter the potentially dangerous types. They tend to be loud talkers and sometimes I can't help listening. I once saw a coterie gathered around a man who had just completed a fifteen year stretch in prison . . . which I imagine in their world is like graduating Oxford. You could tell he enjoyed rock star status and, let's face it, there is a certain appeal ex-jailbirds have for the law-abiding as well. I had my antenna up. He fairly held court and even told a few stories about prison which, after a year's time, I regret I can't remember. But, brother, he looked tough.

Just the other day I was in the Park Street McDonald's and, moments after having seated myself, a whole gang of miscreants in their twenties descended upon my area like the after-party to some notable event. One of them even purchased a coffee to show they were patrons. I heard stories of the places they had been kicked out of, how "lit" they were last night, and what type of people they liked to rob. You could tell they didn't identify themselves as losers, but rather as rebels, proud square pegs disdainful of a round-holed world. No doubt a quick inspection of their street credentials would have proved everything in order.  I imagine that to them, workaday stiffs like myself are the real losers. Perhaps there's something to it, maybe my mundane existence, this eternal punch clock life I live, is something I've been brainwashed into thinking is preferable to sleeping in shelters and always being broke. I'll have to give that matter a bit more thought. In the meantime, I'll continue to frequent the only acceptable place where our two worlds intersect. And lovin' it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

TOBs


I go on vacation next week. Usually I have solid plans for vacations, but this time my plan is to pretend I'm retired. That's all. It's kind of a dream of mine, retirement. At the age of 56, situated where I am right now, taking into account all of my financial, career, and health prospects, I can safely expect to retire sometime within the next 30 years. Maybe 30 years from this very day, who knows? The boss will walk over to the ditch I'm digging, rap several times on my hardhat to get my attention and shout loudly into the ear that still has 30 percent hearing, "Schprock, we don't need you anymore! Pack up and go home!" Then I'll drag my weary, gnarled body out of the hole I dug, trudge home, warm up a can of minestrone soup, and welcome in the golden years knowing there's at least one more hole meant for me yet.

A part of me still thinks I'm a kid. In my mind, I'm something like 20 or 21. And outwardly I'm not in bad shape for a person of my advanced years. I'm still skinny, in decent shape, I have hair and that hair hasn't a speck of grey in it. People assume that I'm younger than I am. But I am 56. On March 1st of this year, I had a procedure done to my heart called ablation to correct a condition known as atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat that comes and goes. I can actually trace this condition back to when I was 19 or 20 and I assumed at the time that this funny thing my chest was doing was brought on by smoking cigarettes, so I used that assumption as motivation to quit smoking. I did manage to quit smoking (no easy task) but my heart still got a little jumpy from time to time. As I got older, the episodes became more frequent and lasted longer. Finally, in my early 40s, I saw a doctor about it during a stretch when the a-fib went on for about three days. 

There are drugs that can control a-fib, but not without side effects, so I opted instead to simply live with it. You may wonder what a-fib feels like. Try doing this: walk out to your car, pop open the hood, disconnect one spark plug wire and start the engine. That's what it feels like. Or imagine this: a washing machine with an oversized, unbalanced load whipping violently around during the spin cycle going thump! thump! thump! as the machine traces a drunken dance step across the laundry room floor.

I had the ablation done in Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. My surgeon expected the procedure to take three to four hours but it wound up taking six. I wasn't conscious during any of it, and believe me, six hours under general anesthesia can take its toll. I entered the hospital a healthy man capable of pedaling a bicycle more than 100 miles. I left a weak and shuffling shell of myself. When they said it required an overnight stay in the hospital and then taking it easy for a week, I thought, how hard could it be? Ha! I think now to myself. Ha ha!

A very unfortunate side effect resulting from the operation was nerve damage to my lower legs. The surgeon had no idea how it happened and didn't seem to want to talk about it, perhaps sensing a malpractice suit. When I woke up, which happened in the middle of a big rush with the surgical team yanking tubes out of me while whisking me off into the recovery room, I noticed that my feet and calves felt numb. After a brief struggle, I got my feet to work, making them go up and down and wiggling my toes and so on, but the numbness persisted . . . to this very day. Not nearly so bad now, but I still haven't regained 100 percent control of my legs.

The numbness and the constant low-grade pain that set in when the numbness faded is called neuropathy. That's what a nurse practitioner told me it was when she prescribed Neurontin (or "nerve pills," as I liked to call them) and told me to start wearing old man-style compression socks. I also had to sit with my legs elevated higher than my heart three times a day for 20 minutes at a time. But the pain seemed never to cease, especially at night making sleeping difficult. When I walked, it felt like my socks were made of Brillo and that the skin of my feet was systematically abrading away. I knew, and could tell myself with confidence, that this was simply my screwed-up nerve endings sending false information to a brain that was apparently ready to believe anything. Telling myself that did me no good whatsoever.

In time the pain stopped and I could do just about everything except run. Running was, and still is, out. I mean, I can run after a fashion, but my feet simply will not carry out my instructions as I would like. And then . . . and then! . . . I stepped on a tree root the wrong way in early August. That messed up my left foot. In time my left foot healed, but then my right foot, which has never come anywhere close to a tree root, is now experiencing the same sprained symptoms my left foot did. Very strange. My doctor will tell me that I'm full of shit, she'll tell me it's a compensatory injury from when my left foot was sore, but I feel sure this is all somehow tied in with the nerve damage.

So I'm old. I'm banged up. I walk with a slight limp. But I keep on plugging.

Years ago, back when I jogged a three-mile route in the early mornings, I frequently came across an elderly woman watering her front lawn with a hose. In the warm weather she wore a loose-fitting house dress with sneakers and floppy white socks, and had her hair up in curlers and often sported a smoldering cigarette hanging from scowling lips. I sensed defiance and pugnaciousness and an unwillingness to put up with any bullshit, and she looked like she could take me out with one punch or fall on a live grenade and survive the blast. Life had made her wizened and hard and indestructible, or so it seemed to me. I never spoke to her, but I always noticed her, and, as is my wont, I made up a nickname for her, which was "Tough Old Broad," eventually shortening it to "TOB." It then occurred to me that she couldn't be the only TOB out there, that there must be TOBs everywhere, and that TOBs shouldn't be restricted to women either, but this honor could apply to men as well, whom I dubbed "Tough Old Bastards."

And what is a Tough Old Bastard? A good poster boy might be Clint Eastwood, only not Republican National Convention Clint, but Gran Torino Clint. Old but tough, tougher than boot leather, the vital forces still strong, still has it all together, maybe even more together than the TOBs-in-training you see in Viagra commercials. He's seen it all, done it all, so don't mess with him.

Someday I'd like to be a Tough Old Bastard. I'm not old enough yet, nor am I tough enough, but my aspirations lie in this direction. Tough Old Bastards laugh off aches and pains, find ways to get around the obstacles age throws at you. They know how to do things old school. You put a TOB and some fresh-faced 40-year-old on a desert island equipping each with a can opener, a plastic coffee stirrer and a dented El Dorado hubcap and guess who makes it out alive? Do you even need to guess? Tough Old Bastards make the younger guys feel somehow inadequate without them ever knowing quite why. But I know why. It's because they're tough, they're old, and they're bastards!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sylvia Plath



I just reread The Bell Jar for the first time in thirty-plus (gasp!) years and then read Plath's biography in Wikipedia. I have to say this: Ted Hughes, the big shot Poet Laureate husband who left her and her two children for another woman is a very, very hard man to like.

Yeah, I wasn't there, I didn't know what was going on, blah blah blah. I hate him.

I asked one of my daughters if she ever had to read The Bell Jar in school, as it was assigned reading back in my day. She said no and asked me what it was about. I told her that when I was in school people described it as kind of The Catcher in the Rye for girls . . . which is a pretty simplistic way of putting it but you can see the comparison. Then she asked me what The Catcher in the Rye was about.

I grieve for this generation.